Looking at the collection of telescopes in the Royal Observatory, it’s notable just how many hand-held instruments we have. This is mainly because although we usually think of the telescope as an instrument for astronomy, most of those ever made were for far much more earthly purposes. And to their makers and sellers they were above all commercial products.
Portable telescope by George Willdey, about 1710 (NAV1522)
This now slightly damaged telescope is one of our decidedly commercial examples. It was made in about 1710 by a London maker called George Willdey. With its black shagreen barrel, gold-tooled green leather draw tubes and ivory fittings, it was obviously a luxury item for the rich and fashionable of the metropolis.
This point becomes even clearer when you look at the range of stuff Willdey sold, shown in one of his advertisements from the same period.
Advertisement for George Willdey’s shop
At the time, all these different items would have been classed as ‘toys’, meaning not children’s playthings but small fashionable items for adults, such as fans, snuff boxes, writing tools and game pieces. Willdey’s advert shows quite beautifully that the telescope could be not just a tool of science, but also a firmly commercial luxury item.
You can hear more about George Willdey and his telescopes at our forthcoming conference, The Long View, in July.
OK. So what do the following have in common?
Answers… in a blog sometime in the future…
PS there is a big clue contained in Phil Rich’s blog: Researching the NMM’s film archive: post-war images of the oceanic cruise, posted 10 March ’09.
This year sees the 250th anniversary of Britain’s Annus Mirabilis. In other words, and in case your Latin’s a bit rusty, 1759 was the so-called ‘Year of Victories’: a watershed year in the Seven Years’ War and one which, arguably, altered the course of British history.
The Death of General Wolfe
For Britain, 1759 was a year of military triumphs, at places like Minden in today’s Germany and Quebec in Canada, as well as decisive naval victories, at Lagos off Portugal and Quiberon Bay in France. Some people, like General James Wolfe and Admiral Edward Hawke, emerged as heroes; others, such as Lord George Sackville at Minden, were vilified for their contribution to the war effort (or, rather lack of it!). Over the past number of months, I have been working on how 1759, and the Battle of Quebec in particular, has been remembered and commemorated over the course of the last two and half centuries. There is a very important local Greenwich connection here too: James Wolfe spent part of his teenage years in Greenwich, his mother lived in a house that looks on to Greenwich Park, and Wolfe himself was buried in St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich following his death at Quebec in September 1759.
‘A View of the Taking of Quebec September 13th 1759′
Of course, military engagements were not the only things to happen in 1759. Recently, I attended a conference that considered the year from a number of different points of view. It was a year in which George Frideric Handel died and in which William Wilberforce, Robert Burns and Mary Wollstonecraft were born. In the fields of literature, it saw the publication of Voltaire’s Candide, Samuel Johnson’s The Prince of Abissinia (later Rasselas), and the first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. The second edition of Edmund Burke’s highly influential A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, with its important new introduction on ‘taste’, also appeared in 1759. And, in the world of museums, the British Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time.
One historian has remarked that 1759 should be as well known as 1066, 1588, 1688 and 1707, but I have found it to be generally inconspicuous among the years that people regard as historically important. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the events that took place in 1759 impacted so significantly on so many people, and with such monumental consequences for this country, that it is certainly worthy of remembering.
While looking into the history of the telescope, I’ve been struck by the number of images that, perhaps unsurprisingly, show it symbolically as an instrument of revelation and learning. One of my favourites is this detail from the frontispiece to Johannes Hevelius’ Selenographia of 1647.
Hevelius (1611-87) was from a brewing family from Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), gaining further riches from his marriage to Katharine Rebeschke, whose family lived next door. Being so well off, he could indulge his passion for astronomy by building large telescopes for his personal observatory, which spread across the city’s rooftops. One of the things he did there was to spend four years making detailed, and very beautiful, maps of the Moon, which he published in the Selenographia. His very fine observing skills and artistic talent, not to mention the quality of his telescopes, meant that these were the best lunar maps available for a century.
This detail from the book’s frontispiece symbolically shows how the telescope fitted into his work and thinking.
In the centre is the figure of Contemplatio, covered in eyes and carried aloft by an eagle. Both these figures are significant. ‘Contemplatio’ can be translated as contemplation, but also as viewing or surveying, while the eagle represents both vision and ascension. Contemplatio is also holding a telescope in her right hand and is using it to sweep away the clouds of ignorance. Behind her are the Sun and Moon as revealed by the telescope, with sunspots clearly visible. Beneath Contemplatio, two putti hold a banner with a biblical quotation from Isaiah, which translates, ‘Lift up your eyes on high and behold who hath created these things.’ To Hevelius, then, the telescope is an instrument that reveals the truth about a (Christian) created universe, the contemplation of which is a spiritual journey in itself . His telescope is a weapon of intellectual and spiritual advancement.
If you are interested in Johannes Hevelius and his astronomical work, you can find out more at our forthcoming conference, The Long View.
The frame for J.M.W. Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar, one of the largest oil paintings in the Museum’s collection, recently spent a few weeks in the Frame Conservation studio. As one of the iconic images relating to Nelson, the painting is a must-see for many visitors to the Museum and would normally be hanging somewhere in the galleries. The NMM frame conservators took advantage of a rare opportunity to do some extensive work replacing missing ornament while the painting and its frame were between venues on a travelling program which has already included 3 venues in the USA.
At over 3 metres by 4 metres it may seem surprising that we were able to get this huge frame into the studio, but luckily it was designed to break down into the four pieces and is held together with original nineteenth century large bolts and brackets.
We think that when the painting was moved to the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital a big tablet label was put onto the bottom section of the frame which necessitated the removal of the moulded decoration in that location.
We decided to replace these losses using moulds taken from the running pattern on a corresponding section of frame. All in all we used some 3.5 Kg of dentist’s silicon impression putty. The end result is that the frame is much improved, ready to resume its travels, and is now happily packed away in the custom made case commissioned for this touring exhibition. Next stop Tate Britain, and then on to Paris!